Category Music

Brilliant Songs #11: Chris Smither’s “Time Stands Still”

Waiting for the consummate rootsy-bluesy singer-songwriter Chris Smither to come on stage last weekend at Durham’s Blue Note Grill, we greeted our friend Michael the Sound Board Guy, who noted with a kind of respect-just-this-side-of-awe in his voice that the packed crowd was absolutely crawling with local musicians. Little wonder, given the “musician’s musician” label that Smither, now 76, has earned over a half-century of crafting songs that combine lyrical depth, humor, virtuoso guitar picking and a driving beat he keeps going with the slightly amplified foot-tapping that serves as his own rhythm section.

“I can’t not do it,” he once told an interviewer regarding his footwork, which involves both feet, heel and toe, tapping out the often syncopated rhythms that are but one of the qualities that give his music its distinct, “Oh, that must be Chris Smither” feel.

But as good as the pur...

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The Turning Year in Poem and Song

The great earth spins, morning to night and back again, season upon season, the eternal return, its unalterable rhythm punctuated in the days of our own lives by our scurryings after food and drink, fun and rapture and love. The lives we make are all our own, yet beneath each one, a Great Commonality, a stickiness to others, all others, across all space and time, who harbor near-identical needs, dreams, longings, and questions of the night.

Below, a poem reflecting that commonality, the universal rhythms and rituals of our daily lives, given perspective and focus at this turning of the year, the turning of a hand toward another, the turning of the shovel as we lay a beloved to rest, the turning to light as the winter solstice recedes and spring beckons us anew.

All the best to you, my friends, in 2020.

***

                   THE YEAR

By Ellen Wheeler Wilcox (1910)

What can be said in New Year ...

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Brilliant Songs #10: Tom Waits’s “Take It With Me”

Tom Waits

Last week, a plumber digging a trench by which we will be running electricity and water to a backyard shed-glorifed-into-a-library was backing his truck up the incline of our driveway, the back weighed down by the trailing ditch witch behind him and rather severely scraping the gravel, producing a sound that reminded no one of, say, Judy Collins. Nor, indeed, of any singer in the known universe this side of…Tom Waits.

Upon reflection, I could almost see Waits in the driver’s seat, his slightly askew pork pie hat protruding from the window, backing that baby up while low-growling in accompaniment, relishing the fingernail-dirtying work awaiting him on a cloudy fall morning. Not for him the refined beauty of a choir voice, the easy swing of Sinatra, the pretty balladry of Paul Simon.

Waits never flirted with pretty, the ditch witch and its excavated mud far more his metier than is a glorious floral arrang...

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Brilliant Songs #9: James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” 

Sometimes a particular piece of music hits you as so insightful, so acutely reflecting the issues of your time, that the songwriter seems to be channeling some urgent message the gods require in order to restore a measure of balance and perspective to the insanity that abides, on the events of your historical moment that leave you shaking your head and wondering, “How can this be happening?”

And then, in a kind of doubling down on the songwriter’s vision, the message of his or her song in a subsequent era, rather than fading into irrelevance, instead achieves even more urgency, as the forces that helped shape the original message grow only more dominant and oppressive over time.

And then, as if anticipating the far more divisive and nativist rhetoric that would sprout from the seeds planted in the Bush era, McMurtry scores with this bull’s-eye painted with eerie prescience right on the back of the ...

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Brilliant Songs #8: Gretchen Peters’s “Disappearing Act”

Gretchen Peters has been making music for a long time now, and as befits a singer-songwriter who looks in about equal measure around at the world and inside herself for her material, her music changes with the years. This is even as her core obsessions, if you will—seeking a measure of consolation and sense of identity in a fractured, wounding world—continue to propel her creativity.

Last year, at age 61, she released “Dancing With the Beast,” a deeply felt set of meditations on aging, change, depression, family pain, even truck stop prostitution (no, that last one is not autobiographical).

All manner of topics, in other words, that befit an artist who confided to NPR last year in an interview: “I have a theory that there are two kinds of people—there’s people who find sad songs depressing, then there’s us.”

As someone who counts himself quite happily among that “us,” I found t...

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